The regional city of Bendigo has been a hotspot for anti-Islam tensions in recent years. In 2014, the Greater Bendigo City Council approved the construction of the city’s first-ever mosque. A small but vocal group of anti-mosque protestors campaigned against the decision and some tied black balloons outside a councillor’s house.
In response, the Uniting Church organised an event where a group of mosque supporters flew colourful balloons in celebration of the city’s diversity. Tags with the words ‘racism has no place in Bendigo’ were attached to the balloons. A number of community, political and faith leaders attended the event in a show of solidarity.
Rev Cynthia Page, minister at Eaglehawk and Marong Uniting Church, was one of the event organisers.
“I strongly believe in interfaith solidarity, in celebrating diversity and affirming the blessings in different faiths,” she said.
“Muslims and Christians, along with Jews, all believe in God and we share stories of faith and life. I have many friends and neighbours who are Muslim and they enrich my life and faith as I, hopefully, enrich theirs.”
Approximately 300 Muslims live in Bendigo and they worship in a small prayer room at the local La Trobe University campus. The nearest mosque is more than 90 minutes away in Shepparton.
The long-running saga reached a conclusion in June this year when the High Court rejected a final appeal against the mosque, paving the way for its construction.
“Harmony has returned to Bendigo and I believe the majority of Bendigodians support a community that values unity amidst diversity,” Ms Page said.
“I think there has been a definite increase in tolerance and understanding.”
The successful balloon event has galvanised the Bendigo community into finding new ways to embrace its multifaith identity. The Believe in Bendigo campaign emerged in 2015 to celebrate the town’s cultural diversity and make a firm stand against racism. Ms Page also helped establish the Bendigo Interfaith Council, which seeks to promote tolerance and inclusiveness in the community.
“Jesus came to show us God who is love, only love, and that love is inclusive and embracing of all,” Ms Page said.
“Jesus transcended cultural boundaries regarding intolerance and non-inclusiveness and calls us to work with him and the Spirit to do the same.”
The Uniting Church celebrates Interfaith September every year. Visit https://assembly.uca.org.au/interfaithseptember2016 for worship resources.